cademy award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence recently announced her plan to take a break from her acting career in order to “fix our democracy.” The 27-year-old celebrity told Entertainment Tonight that she will work with an organization, “Represent.US,” to “get young people engaged politically on a local level.” “It doesn’t have anything to do with partisan [politics],” she said of her involvement with the non-profit organization. “It’s just anti-corruption and stuff trying to pass state by state laws that can help prevent corruption.”
Like many celebrities, Lawrence was a staunch Hillary Clinton supporter during the 2016 election. She justified her support on the grounds of Clinton’s experience and technocratic pedigree. “I’m like, ‘I want a career politician!’ I wouldn’t hire an assistant if they didn’t have experience,” Lawrence explained. “We’re talking about the president of the f—king United States!” But there seems little utility in encouraging young people to engage in politics just to persuade them that “fixing our democracy” means becoming activists for entrenched politicians intent on growing the administrative state.
The American experiment in self-government requires citizens who understand both government’s purpose and their own responsibilities as citizens. We cannot delegate the responsibility of governing to “experts” within the administrative state and remain self-governing citizens in a constitutional republic. If we want to “fix our democracy,” we need better citizens before we can expect better politicians.
Lawrence’s faith in career politicians’ expertise is nothing new. In August 1955 Philadelphia’s progressive Mayor Joseph S. Clark Jr. wrote “Wanted: Better Politicians” for The Atlantic. Clark described the late-19th century as a“relatively uncomplicated” time when “men still quoted with approval Jefferson’s dictum that government is best when governing least.” Progressing past this era required progressing past the ideas which accompanied it. Simple men with simple ideas were ill-equipped to govern themselves in a more complicated and advanced modern time. Clark praised Woodrow Wilson as having been “the country’s leading authority on American government,” which made Wilson uniquely qualified for the role as our lead administrator. Clark’s thesis is indicative of how many progressives think: in order to solve government’s inefficiencies, we need more members from society’s elite and professional class in control.
Wilson would’ve agreed with Clark that technical expertise should supersede popular sovereignty as the most important qualification for public service. In an essay written while teaching at Mawr College in 1887, “The Study of Administration,” Wilson argued for the need to “organize democracy by sending up to the competitive examinations for the civil service men definitely prepared for standing liberal tests as to technical knowledge.” Wilson believed these men could solve the underlying problem of self-government, which bestows sovereignty on the “rigidly unphilosophical…bulk of mankind,” who are “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish”―what some career politicians today would call a “basket of deplorables.”
Like other early progressives, Wilson fancied himself a benevolent problem-solver. As C.S. Lewis observed, however, “of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” It is for this reason that technocratic government so easily devolves into a soft despotism. Contemporary progressives continue to repackage and sell this form of government on the merits of its intentions and solutions, rather than its constitutionality or respect for popular sovereignty.
Wilson’s vision for the administrative state is partly drawn from his skepticism toward the intellectual framework of the American founding, particularly the Declaration of Independence. In an address he made to the Jefferson Club of Los Angeles in 1911, Wilson argued that “to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface,” adding how “such sentences do not afford a general theory of government to formulate policies upon. No doubt we are meant to have liberty; but each generation must form its own conception of what liberty is.”
The idea that each passing generation can separately determine the meaning of “liberty” explains Wilson’s support for a “Darwinian Constitution,” which evolves as history marches forward on its linear progression. In contrast, Thomas Jefferson’s “preface” to the Declaration is informed by a classical view of history.
In a letter Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1819, he argues that “no government can continue good but under the control of the people; and…their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice…These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.” This aligns well with the classical view of happiness as defined by Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics. The “chief good” man should pursue, thinks Aristotle, is “eudaimonia,” the Greek term for happiness defined as “an activity of [the] soul in accordance with perfect virtue.” Wilson had little use for the classical understanding of virtue as a means for preserving the state, relying instead on the expertise of unelected public servants.
It remains unclear what Jennifer Lawrence’s “activism” will look like, but we can make an educated guess. Before the 2016 election, Lawrence recalled on the Graham Norton Show that she had attended a concert where Trump was present. “I had my full security, I was like, ‘Find Donald Trump,’” she explained, “because I was adamant on finding him and then making a video of me going, ‘Hey Trump, f–ck you!’” She has since appeared to have moderated her tone. In a more recent Vogue interview she said “We can’t continue this divide and anger. There are issues affecting us as human beings, not as liberals and not as Republicans. We have to protect the foundation of this country, and acceptance.” While this sentiment is preferable to her simple-minded cursing of the President, it’s still safe to assume that Lawrence’s understanding of the “foundation of this country” has little to do the founding principles of our constitutional republic.
If we continue to willingly accept ourselves as the “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish” mass that professional politicians and celebrities alike believe us to be, then the invitation for administrative despotism will only grow. In order to protect our founding principles, public virtue and greater civic education remain key to “fixing our democracy,” not celebrity activism designed to entrench a paternalistic class of career politicians.